Asylum officers receive last-minute guidance on implementing sweeping border policy change

A migrant shelter in Tijuana last week.
(Eduardo Jaramillo Castro / AFP-Getty Images)

Just hours before a new rule was scheduled to take effect Tuesday that would essentially end asylum at the U.S. southern border, the Trump administration started giving officers guidance on how to carry out a radically changed U.S. immigration policy.

The Times late Monday obtained internal memos detailing how to implement the sweeping changes, including a 21-page PowerPoint presentation, lengthy guidance and half a dozen supporting documents sent to personnel and leadership in the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Refugee, Asylum and International Operations Directorate.

According to the internal memos, John Lafferty, the head of asylum at Citizenship and Immigration Services, expressed concern that asylum officers had been repeatedly rushed to implement significant policy changes with little advance notice.


“We are once again being asked to adapt, and to do so with very little time to train and prepare,” Lafferty wrote. “If I didn’t know that we have some of the most dedicated, adaptable, and most talented public servants presently serving in the federal government, I would be concerned about being able to implement these changes on such short notice.”

The memos instruct officers that starting Tuesday, any migrant who enters, attempts to enter, or arrives in the U.S. across the southern border is ineligible for asylum, with few exceptions. To be eligible under the new rule, for example, applicants must prove that they are victims of “a severe form of trafficking in persons.”

Another exceedingly rare, perhaps impossible, exception applies to anyone who gets to the border through far-flung countries, such as North Korea and Myanmar, which have not signed international agreements on refugees and torture.

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The rule bars the vast majority of current asylum seekers because it effectively renders migrants ineligible if they pass through another country before arriving at the U.S. borderleaving only Mexican residents, who make up a small fraction of asylum applicants.

The guidance also raises the standard officers use to screen claims of fear when an applicant is seeking protection from removal under the Convention Against Torture, making asylum more difficult to obtain.

In instructions on interviewing applicants, officers are directed to “ascertain the alien’s date and manner of entry into the United States.” Judges have rejected the administration’s previous attempts to deny protections to those who cross the border between official entry points.


After the administration announced the new rule Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union said it would file suit immediately to block the policy.

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The new rule does not apply to migrants entering or attempting to enter in other locations, besides the southern border, according to the guidance. But soon, the memos state, the restrictions will be applied to affirmative asylum claims, generally made by those who obtain visas or arrive at U.S. airports, entering legally and later requesting permission to stay.

“These updated procedures are effective immediately,” the memos state. “All asylum officers are responsible for conducting field training for staff on these updated procedures as soon as practicable, no later than one week from today.”